I'm fast coming to the conclusion that you actually need to be quite stupid to use a computer these days. Within a few years those with even a minor modicum of capability, or just a hint of innate common sense, or even mental agility that verges on a level around normal, will find themselves completely excluded from the ever-present, always-connected, online virtualness and technological future of man (and women) kind. We'll be reduced to writing on stuff called "paper" and sending these hand-written messages to others by buying "postage stamps". Or actually talking using ordinary words over a voice connection called a "telephone".
OK, so this partly comes about as a result of my daily battles with software that is either so simplified and "user-friendly" that it's almost impossible to make it do what you want, or which seems intent on trying to hide from you anything that does not involve answering inane questions. Yes, I know I've ranted on about this in probably far too many blog posts in the past. And I appreciate that software should be as intuitive and easy to use as possible to open up our wonderful world of computing technology to the widest possible audience.
But this week I've seen with some horror the effects of our attempts to achieve this in gory close-up detail as I've tried to help some friends get set up with their new computer. And these aren't stupid people trying to do difficult stuff. They have both run retail businesses before they retired from full-time work, and can quite successfully manage things like programming a video recorder, working the latest types of mobile phones, and eating gum whilst walking. And what's worse, they actually had another friend who is technically quite competent help them get their modem and Internet connection set up and working, yet fail to complete the job.
So these people looked on in horror as I tried to get them started with a bit of basics on using a GUI, starting and stopping programs, and gentle Web surfing. Questions I never even anticipated, such as "Why are there so many different ways to do the same thing?" and "What are all these little pictures on the bottom for?" (the notification icon area which contains no less than 11 icons that do nothing when you click on them). And even "How do I turn it off?" They didn't seem to intuitively grasp that you need to click the button that says "Start" if you wave your mouse pointer over it when you wanted to stop.
Then there's the free 60-day trial of Office that continually pops up a dialog asking you to register it, sends you (after several clicks) to a page that gives you a product key and tells you to copy it into the Office "register" dialog, but then sends you an email to tell you to do it all over again. Or the Norton program that nags continually until you click the "Fix" button, then does a few tricks, and then starts to "check your system" - at which point everything stops with no indication of what it's doing or how long it will take. And then it starts to "backup your files" to some online repository (no idea where). It says you can carry on working, but reports that the process failed when you close the nag window.
On my first visit, I set up a Windows Live email account for them so they wouldn't have to keep changing their email address when they change ISPs (I've read enough horror stories about the one they are with, though I suspect that all ISPs have a reasonably equal number of these circulating the 'Net). But the next day they told me that they hadn't managed to get into it again because they couldn't figure out what to do when presented with the initial Home page. "Why do I have to wave my arrow thing all over the page to see which bits do something?" they asked. I'd explained that links were usually blue and underlined, so they were completely fooled by links that are black and only go blue and underlined when you move the mouse pointer over them; and doubly fooled by the main login one that lit up blue. Though no doubt, after a while, they'll get used to the strange and often unintuitive conventions we take for granted (like "I can understand Maximize and Minimize, but what does Restore Down mean?").
Still, all of this is just a familiarization process, and they'll soon become proficient and inclusive members of our high-tech community. Though where the fun really started was trying to get their ISP email working so they could receive messages and online bills. My ISP (British Telecom) allows you to specify any email address to receive the "important information about our services" messages. But their ISP insists that you use their own email system, so we had to persuade Windows Email (a.k.a. Outlook Express) to talk to their mail servers. No, you can't just use the Webmail feature because the email setup process (which you have to do yourself) requires that you verify mail server registration using an "important information about our services" email that they send you before you can log in (?).
You kick off this registration process through their own Web site, after logging into it with your "broadband account details" - which are different from your email account details they send you in the welcome pack with your modem (even though you don't yet have an email account). And here we come to the nub of the issue that drove me (and them) crazy. The ISP provides a password to log onto their site in the "welcome" letter. But after endless attempts we couldn't make it work. So we phoned the automated "password reminder" service. The nice electronic lady read out the user name and password - exactly the same as in the welcome letter.
Now I don't know about you, but faced with a password (and this isn't the real one) such as "H6C2W9A3", and being canny enough to guess that - like most systems - it is case-sensitive, what would you type in? My guess is the same as we did over and over again: "H6C2W9A3". What you actually have to type is "h6c2w9a3". Yes, it's case sensitive, but to save confusion they print it in the welcome pack using "letters that look the same as the ones on the keyboard". And the automated password reminder service read it out as "haych for Henry, number six, see for Charlie, number two, double-you for Whisky, number nine, 'ay for Alpha, number three". Not even a suggestion that there might be some lower-case stuff in there.
Now you see what I mean about stupid people? The only people who will be able to use the Internet in a few years time are those who WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS and don't even realize that there are such things as "small letters". And, after all that, when we finally did get to the "My Account" page, we found the following message (and note the interesting use of grammar): "My Account is currently unavailable. We making some improvements to our customer service and online systems over the weekend".
Probably they're making them more compatible with stupid people...